Russian Avant-Garde and the rural spaces 

Goncharova Natalia Sergeevna, “Washing canvas”. The state Tretyakov Gallery. Canvas, oil on canvas 105X117

In his article for Freeze, writer Tom Jeffreys argues that today’s art world is increasingly turning its attention to rural spaces. He cites examples of art projects such as the Myvillages collective, Grizedale Arts and architect Rem Koolhaas with his exhibition “Countryside: The Future” which opened at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in February 2020 to support his thesis.

Tom Jeffreys believes the village can be an art space in the future. The idea seems very real to me, especially after last year, when all the urban exhibition spaces and the museum were closed. And maybe this could be one of the impulses to socialize art and take it beyond the elite viewer. 

In Russian Avant-Garde Art, the theme of the village began to be actively raised by artists in the late 19th century, the common people became a symbol of the Russian spirit and the problem of the rural spaces was increasingly discussed among artists. There are several reasons for this. Under Peter the Great (18th century) there was a dramatic westernisation of the elite. The nobility tried to emulate European culture, and it was customary for families to speak French. This created a huge gap between the elite and the common people, who continued to live the old ways and had no access to education and culture. 

In 1861, serfdom was abolished in the Russian Empire and the peasants became free. But the abolition of serfdom was not followed by instant change for the countryside, the peasants appeared to themselves and the common Russian people became a symbol of injustice and stratification in society.

In the years leading up to the peasant reforms, the so-called generation of “sixties” emerged. The most radical of them called themselves “raznochinetsi”, which deliberately emphasised their opposition to the nobility. One of them was Chernyshevsky, who wrote one of the most cultured novels of his time, “What Is to Be Done”, which hints at the coming revolution.

But visual art was still academic; with the art academy painting historical and mythological motifs, the artists were not concerned with the real life of the people. 

Peredvizhniki 

It is impossible not to write about the Peredvizhniki in this context. They are much criticised today for their plan to train peasants from the capitals, but the idea is inherently interesting. So what did the Peredvizhniki do? These artists, in short, did away with academism in Russia and went to the people, in the rural spaces. 

The forerunners of the Peredvizhniki were the artists of the St. Petersburg Artel of Artists. In 1863, 14 students at the Academy of Fine Arts declared that they wanted to choose the themes for their graduation works themselves. At that time, the Academy of Arts was a very conservative institution, aimed mainly at painting biblical, historical and mythological subjects. As you might expect, the artists were turned down and left the university just before the final exams. They organised an Artel of Artists.This cooperative association became the platform for the birth of the Comradeship of the Peredvizhniki.  

In 1882, Vladimir Stasov, one of the ideologists of the movement, stated that the main principles of the group were “nationality and realism”. The Peredvizhniki strove to turn their attention to subjects from the contemporary life of the Russian countryside, often criticising the current state of life of the peasants.

Through traveling exhibitions, they dreamed of enlightenment. By moving from one small village to another, organising exhibitions with only new works, they wanted to make art accessible to all. But in fact, the exhibitions didn’t reach peasants depicted in the paintings. As tickets were expensive and the exhibitions were commercially oriented, they involved the purchase of works. The same educated elite who could get their hands on art remained their regular visitors.  

Kandinsky 

In September 2020, I went to the Komi Republic in Russia to do my master’s research on isolated village structures in the Komi Republic.  There is an ethnographic museum in the capital city of the Komi Republic, Syktyvkar, and I enthusiastically went there. 

My aim was to explore similar projects and understand if artists have been involved in small communities in villages before. And then I came across an interesting book about Wassily Kandinsky’s journey to the Komi People, which really struck me, because we didn’t talk about his travels in art history classes at university.

At the end of May 1889, Wassily Kandinsky set off for Vologda Province. As a law student at Moscow University, he received funding from the Society of Natural History, Anthropology and Ethnography. His scientific aim was to study the “Zyryans lands”. Kandinsky’s trip was primarily to visit the Ust-Sysolsky and Ust-Kulomsky district of the Vologda Region, home to the Komi people. The main aim of his ethnographic research was to preserve evidence of the ancient Komi-Zyryans, linked to the pagan culture.

“My goal was twofold: to study ordinary criminal law from the Russian population (research in the field of primitive law) and to collect the remnants of pagan religion from slowly dying of Zyryans living mainly on hunting and fishing.”(1)

During his journey, the artist kept a diary with detailed descriptive notes from which his journey and observations can be reconstructed. He also made small sketches of what he saw to help the reader visualise it. Kandinsky’s travel diary is now kept at the Centre J. Pompidou in Paris.  

“It was in these unusual houses that I met the miracle for the first time which was to become one of the elements in my work. Here I learned not to look from the outside, but to be directly involved into, to live in. I remember vividly the moment I stopped in the doorway at this unexpected sight. A table, a bench, an impressive and huge stove, cupboards, postavets (a kind of cabinet for plates and dishes) – everything was painted with colorful sweeping patterns. On the walls there were cheap popular prints such as symbolic representations of a hero, a battle, a song reproduced with paint. A rad corner hung with painted and printed icons with a red glimmering icon-lamp in front, as if it knew something about itself, lived to itself, it was a mysteriously whispering modest and proud star. When I finally came into the room, I was surrounded by painting and entered into it. Since that time I’ve had this feeling unconsciously, even though I experienced it in Moscow churches, especially in the Cathedral of the Dormition and St. Basil’s Cathedral. After this trip I was differently aware of it after visiting Russian picturesque churches…Perhaps it is through such experiences that I embodied my future desires, goals in art. I spent several years researching ways to introduce the viewer into the picture so that they can live in it and dissolve in oblivion.”(2)

From the artist’s diary one can see his inspiration for the village house. He does not just write about the fact that this trip has largely influenced his goals in his art. The motifs of folk art and his perception of the countryside are clearly evident in his vivid painting. 

Interestingly, in the house close to Munich, where he spent 5 years of his life together with the artist and his partner Gabriele Münter, one can find his and her work, paintings on furniture and stairs based on folk art. Perhaps they drew inspiration from traditional Bavarian mural painting. It is also possible that Kandinsky used the insights collected when he travelled through the Komi villages. By transforming the history of the village into a manifesto for new painting, Kandinsky took an important step towards a new awareness of rural spaces.

Goncharova  

The first time I delved into Natalia Goncharova’s story was when I was writing a study on the visual arts in Sergei Diaghilev’s The Ballets Russes.

She spent her childhood in the countryside with her grandmother. She only went to Moscow to attend gymnasium and was always drawn back to the village. Even as a child she was fond of drawing rural landscapes, nature and flowers. After graduating from art school, she returned to the village and began to embody the life of the people in her artwork.  

After returning from the countryside to the city, she joins the “Bubnovi’ Valet” society formed by Mikhail Larionov. The artists of the society declared that their works were not for professional critics, but for the people. They tried to make art accessible and understandable. There were many works on social themes, as opposed to the traditional historical and mythological themes of art. Here her painting “Washing the Canvas” is particularly vivid. Four peasant women are washing the loose white ribbons of cloth spread out in front of them. This work is very hard, which can be seen in their poses. The artist not only painted the hard work of a rural woman, but the beautiful and broad nature of the Russian countryside. 

I will skip a few years of the artist’s work and turn to her creative alliance with Sergeev Degilev.  In 1914 the Theatre de Chatelet in Paris, with which Diaghilev was collaborating at the time, performed the ballet “Le Coq d’or” as part of the Russian Seasons of “Ballets Russes”. The libretto of  “Le Coq d’or” is based on a traditional Russian fairy tale by Alexander Pushkin, “The Golden Cockerel”. Natalia Goncharova was invited to be a costume and stage designer for the production.    

At that time, Goncharova was particularly interested in the history of traditional Russian art. She collected many artefacts and examples of art, such as Vladimir Stasov’s Album of Slavonic and Oriental Ornaments

Natalia Goncharova, like many other avant-garde artists of her time, was oriented towards Eastern culture. In 1913, she wrote: 

“I have turned away from the West…For me the East means the creation of new form, an extending and deepening  of the problem of color.”(3)

For the peasant costumes in “Le Coq d’or”, Goncharova chose popular Russian shirts of simple beige cloth. The shirts were decorated with bright ornaments. They matched the modern choreography that Fokin had created for the dancers. The free form of the costumes allowed the dancers to move freely. Women’s peasant costumes were “bunched and formless despite their attractive pattern and colour”. (4) The make-up of the dancers was “clumsily daubed with red”. (5) For this reason, the dancers looked like “highly coloured Russian peasant toys, temporarily endowed with life”. (6) The naive and flamboyant costumes were felt in Fokin’s puppet choreography. All together emphasised the satirical element of Pushkin’s tale. 

The Future of the art’s approach to the rural 

Behind these stories is a change in attitudes to the rural spaces in the world of the Russian Avant-Garde. The movement towards bringing art closer to the people, and in the Russian sense to the village, which began two centuries ago, is becoming increasingly relevant in today’s realities. 

Looking at the Avant-Garde examples, which I am certainly inspired by, raises the idea of how to move from representation to inclusion of the rural spacesin art. Working with rural communities in my opinion should be a compulsory practice of cultural institutions. People should be given a voice, an opportunity to participate in the process of making or creating by themselves. The inclusion of communities in art projects can give an input to our perception of rural spaces as a new place and the development of art towards a new direction. 

Blurring the boundaries between the elite and commoners was not only an idea for the avant-gardists, but is acutely on the agenda in today’s art world. Back in the time of the Peredvizhniki, artists painted the countryside, but those depicted could not even afford to buy tickets to an exhibition. Inaccessible art cannot make an impact; it remains in the ballpark of the elite without going beyond representation. An important step in the socialisation of art could be the opening of open workshops in rural spaces. Then perhaps art would not only represent the people, but also include these people in the art making process. In this case it is also a tool for thinking.

Art talks about the village, portrays the village, exhibits the village – but does not change it. This step, from exhibition to inclusion, which has already taken place in urban spaces, should also be initiated in rural spaces, which certainly need it. This change of space by art and its ability to approach the village interdisciplinarily, on a case-by-case basis, can help develop village communities all over the world.

It is difficult for us to imagine going beyond the familiar spaces, the so-called “white cube” of the museum. What if, taking the example of the avant-gardists, we allowed art to reach the people, to live in places we are used to. What if we made the knowledge we acquire in art schools available and incorporated it into various unusual places. Like, for example, making an exhibition on the walls of the local village shop. It could be a step forward making the visual arts accessible to the countryside. 

Nowadays, contemporary artistic practices are focusing more and more on the space of the countryside in search of new forms of interaction. Rural areas are gradually becoming relevant places for experimentation, such as art residencies and land art. Although the development is highly dependent on the capacities and contexts of individual countries and cultures. 

The idea of re-thinking the rural spaces is becoming open for discussion today. This affects the perception of the role of art in the future of the villages. We have a lot of questions left, which should be answered and it is one of the many steps in the process of the rural development.  

Footnotes:

  1. Kotyleva I.N.: V.Kandinsky’s Journey to the Zyrians in 1889. Syktyvkar, 2013, p.5. Original from Kandisky V.V. Stupeni. Text hudozhnika // Kandisky V.V. Izbrannye Trudy po teoriii iskusstva: 2 volumes. / Ed. N.B. Avtonomova, D.V.Sarab’yanov, V.S. Turshin. V. 1. 1901 – 1914. M., 2008, p.308.
  2. Kotyleva I.N.: V.Kandinsky’s Journey to the Zyrians in 1889. Syktyvkar, p.308-309.
  3.  Natalia Goncharova, “Preface to catalogue of one-woman exhibition” (Moscow: 1913), in John E.Bowlt, Russian Art of the Avant-garde; Theory and Criticism, 1902-1934 (London:Thames and Hudson, 1988), p.59.
  4. Cyril William Beaumont, The Diaghilev Ballet in London: a personal record (London: A. and C.Black, 1951), p. 95.
  5. Beaumont, The Diaghilev Ballet in London: a personal record, p. 95.
  6. Beaumont, The Diaghilev Ballet in London: a personal record, p. 96.
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